Opinions

Employability, Poverty and Welfare Reform

Written by: Ian Welsh, Chief Executive, the ALLIANCE

Published: 10/10/2011

Much of the principle behind policy on employability is right but a clear proposition for the future is required.

In his speech last week to the Conservative Party Conference David Cameron suggested people needed to ‘show some fight’ in response to the tough times we face.  I wonder if he has any notion of just how much fight many people with long term conditions show in their efforts to get, or keep, a job in the face of significant discrimination.

Much of the principle behind policy on employability is right.  Dame Carol Black’s 2008 Review urged a shift in perception among the public, employers and health professionals, away from the assumption that people cannot work, or that work will necessarily exacerbate health issues.  Indeed the evidence is clear that (good) work is good for people’s mental and physical health, as well as being the best route out of poverty.

All of these ideas are sound, and the fact that employment rates for people who are disabled or live with long term conditions have remained so far behind the rest of the population for so long is a mark of failure in a society that claims equality of opportunity.

What is lacking however is a clear proposition of how the efforts of individuals to improve their employability will be matched by action to tackle the unfairness of the labour market.

According to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (2010) a large body of evidence exists on the employment barriers for people who are disabled or live with long term conditions.  Prime among these are the negative attitudes and assumptions on the part of employers, which are only worsened by the stigmatising portrayal of benefits claimants by the media and sections of political parties.

We need to start by tackling negative attitudes and improving understanding among employers.  Many of our member organisations already do fantastic work in this area and we hope to be able to compliment this through a future strand of the My Condition, My Terms, My Life campaign.

We also need to improve educational outcomes and transitions for young people with long term conditions.  Young disabled people aged 16 are twice as likely not to be in any form of education, employment or training, and by aged 19 this rises to a three-fold difference (UK Department for Education and Skills).  We know too that people who are disabled or have long term conditions are more likely to be in lower paid, part time insecure employment and that this is related to lower qualification levels.

And in improving employment chances we need to take a joined-up approach, including across long term conditions, health, education, social care, housing and employability, as well as between the third, statutory and private sectors.  The Self Management Fund has already demonstrated links between self management and employability, and there are obvious alignments within the personalisation, self-directed support and prevention agendas (although employment should not be their primary aim).  We need to see these connections and maximise the impact of policy and services by ensuring they reflect the holistic nature of people’s lives and needs.

We know that people living with long term conditions are among the worst affected in the current economic climate.  They are among those most at risk in a difficult labour market and are often already experiencing a cycle of unemployment, poverty and poor health.  It is not good enough to compel individuals to do their bit by improving their employability without matching that with real, concerted effort to improve access to jobs.  If that does not happen, the inequalities experienced by people who are disabled or live with long term conditions will widen and progress on a whole range of policies – healthier lives, fairer communities, tackling inequality – will be seriously undermined.

Alliance Scotland members frequently highlight the importance of employment issues to the people they represent.  The subject is broad and complex and I look forward to working with our members and others over coming months – not least through a major conference in March 2012 – to explore the issues, give a platform to the voice of people living with long term conditions, and ultimately attempt to contribute towards a fairer Scotland.

A snapshot of evidence:

  • Just under half of disabled people in Scotland are in paid employment, compared to around 75% of the general population (Scottish Government 2010)
  • Young disabled people aged 16 are twice as likely (rising to three times as likely by the age of 19) not to be in any form of education, employment or training (UK Department for Education and Skills)
  • Economic activity rates of people with long term conditions have improved little in recent years.  The Equality and Human Rights Commission (2009) suggests this group will be particularly vulnerable in a contracting labour market.
  • People with long term conditions are more likely to occupy lower status, part time and less secure jobs (Scottish Government 2007, EHRC 2010).
  • According to the EHRC (2010) a ‘large body’ of evidence exists on employment barriers for people who are disabled or live with long term conditions, including negative attitudes from employers and lack of confidence or awareness among individuals about their rights and opportunities.
  • Overall, employers tend to regard people with long term conditions as being less productive and therefore not presenting the same value as other employees (EHRC 2009).
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